Tuesday, August 30, 2005

How Should We Remember Lin Zexu?

Today is Lin Zexu's birthday. Lin was born in 1785, and quickly rose to prominence as an incorruptible official that fought against what he saw as the pernicious evil of the opium trade, and the shameless way in which foreign opium merchants like Jardine Matheson and Russell and Co. regularly flouted edicts banning opium. He particularly despised the officials that cooperated secretly with these merchants for their own private gain, at the expense of the Daoguang Emperor.

He had successfully stopped opium consumption in an inland province in the late 1830s. His secret? An iron fist. He first sent one memorial explaining that opium smoking was banned, and that it would no longer be tolerated. His next move was much less gentle - he began executions of addicts and pushers alike. His success drew the attention of the Emperor himself, who sent him to Canton to deal with the barbarians. He patiently took stock of the situation for a few months, and many Westerners initially even admired this man, who had none of the sleaziness of his predecessors.

But then he sent out an edict banning the opium trade, and demanded that 20,000 chests of opium, a staggering amount in monetary terms, were to be surrendered, or the opium merchants of every nationality would be imprisoned. Eventually, the European community caved in to these community-based threats. Lin had the 20,000 chests destroyed and dumped into the Pearl River. He adopted a zero-tolerance policy to opium, and even sent a letter to Queen Victoria (which was never delivered - nevertheless, the document is a remarkable read). When, after this capitulation, he had heard that some British sailors had killed a Chinese man in the area of Kowloon, he demanded their surrender. This British could not countenance - the surrendering of a British subject to Chinese justice - and they left Canton, and then left Macau when they were forced from the Portuguese toehold on Asia.

Lin's decisive action, however, was his undoing. He had been brave - causing huge disruptions to the status quo of the opium trade in Canton - in the name of the Emperor. However, he believed sincerely that these barbarians would be cowed like barbarians had for the last 400 years - by demonstrations of brute force. He had no knowledge of the huge advances in naval and military technology, or transportation capacity, that made British power projection the most potent force on the planet.

Contemporary Western sources decried Lin's arrogance and xenophobia, believing for too long that the world outside China was 'barbaric' and that China was the source of all virtue, and that Europeans were inferior to the Chinese. It certainly showed in his letter to Queen Victoria mentioned earlier, putting her on a far lower scale than the Emperor of China. I would argue that the arrogance was not Lin's, but China's. For too long, it had rested on its laurels, spurned new technologies to which it had been exposed centuries earlier, demeaned the importance of trade, and condescended to all it surveyed. Its pride was too great - and that aggregate cultural arrogance brought about its fall. I feel it is difficult to fault Lin Zexu, a brave man who took risks in his career to achieve results in the name of the emperor; it is a shame that his career was ruined by a mistake made with regard to forcing the hand of opium merchants that happened to have the ear of the most powerful government of that era.

But as China rises again, let the celebratory triumphalism not become yet again a sneering pride at all countries beyond its borders. A humbler, benign China that engages rather than disdains neighbors near and far, who serve both itself and the world much better.

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